Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Some SPOILERS in here. Nothing too major, but don't say I didn't warn you.

For those of us increasingly resorting to Netflix for our fix of new TV, it seems lawyers are the in thing for 2015. Particularly lawyers with a shady secret. We’ve just had Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel focusing on Walter White’s ‘criminal’ lawyer, and now Marvel have used the streaming service to launch Daredevil, the first of several series exploring the grimier side of the Marvel universe. If you’ve read the comics or seen the Ben Affleck film (poor you), then you know the pitch: Matt Murdock fights crime in the courtroom by day and in the streets by night. 

With all thirteen episodes released in one go, Daredevil’s ready for you to binge right now, and is unlike anything Marvel’s done before. Whereas this franchise, in the cinema and on TV, has previously kept its action fun and its heroes heroic, Daredevil depicts a darker corner of the Marvel universe. It’s violent, it’s nasty, it’s gritty. It’s an urban crime thriller, drenched with blood and neon. I've read the series’ writers talking about having been tonally inspired by The Wire, but to me it feels much more like Breaking Bad – clearly a crime genre piece, and one rooted in real crime, but not overly bothered with realism, more with maintaining both rising action and a focus on a central group of characters. 

In the very centre of that group is Matt Murdock, played excellently by Charlie Cox, who makes Murdock’s bromance with colleague Foggy Nelson tumblr-baitingly adorable while retaining the gravitas needed for us to take his other persona seriously. I like how the show gets straight into the action – within five minutes of the first episode, a masked Murdock has beaten the crap out of some human traffickers. It avoids the trap of being yet another origin story and taking ages to get to the point, which not all Netflix shows about lawyers have achieved… let’s just say I’m glad Murdock didn’t spend the whole season writing up wills for the elderly while occasionally thinking “maybe I should buy a mask.”

But, on the other hand, while Daredevil avoids those trappings of the origin story, it kind of also is one. At least, Murdock develops his "Devil of Hell's Kitchen" persona throughout the series, only becoming the fully-formed hero known to comics fans in the final episode. At the start of the season, he fights crime, sure, but he’s vulnerable, and spends one whole episode needing to be stitched up because he’s had some serious shit beaten out of him – a weakness which makes him all the more compelling and makes it all the more cooler when he still manages to twat a bunch of gangsters at the end of this episode despite looking incredibly worse-for-wear. 

The iconic red costume isn’t seen until the final episode, either, but Murdock’s need to get some new gear is set up throughout the season, with nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson) recommending he invest in some armour so she can have a bit of a break. I was half-expecting the suit’s reveal to be a cringey moment, as the series had taken such a dark tone that it could easily feel out of place, but – you know what – it got away with it. This was in no doubt largely thanks to all the build-up the suit had received – I liked Murdock’s reasoning, from a cuppa with his priest, that he should dress as the devil because he’s a necessary figure to scare people onto the ‘righteous path’ (well, as an atheist, I don’t necessarily agree, but it works for the character and to justify the look).

But what works particularly well about the series is that it’s not just Matt Murdock’s story – it’s also Wilson Fisk’s. Fisk, also known to comics readers as the Kingpin, is Daredevil’s arch-enemy, the biggest mob boss in New York City, and here he’s given a story parallel to Murdock’s. Throughout the course of the series, he builds up his empire, gains territory in the city, and wrestles for control as it crumbles around him. Vincent D’Onofrio plays Fisk as a terrifying figure, with an imposing physicality and a tendency to take his anger out on sub-ordinates in the most brutal way possible, but also as a sensitive and troubled gent, unsure how to behave to impress his date. 

Fisk is significantly more developed and more compelling than any villain in the Marvel universe so far. Importantly, he has just as strong a backstory as Murdock, his conflict between “be a man”-type values and wanting not to “be cruel for the sake of cruelty” being clearly traced back to his experience with an abusive father. Just as importantly, the lines are blurred between hero and villain here more than anywhere else in this universe, with both Murdock and Fisk wanting to make Hell’s Kitchen a better neighbourhood, and this often coming up as a source of confrontation between them – the moment when the penny drops for Murdock that he, seen by the public as a madman in a mask, can easily be blamed for Fisk’s crimes, is a sublime twist.

Wilson Fisk is, without doubt, the Marvel Universe’s best villain to date, and the decision to focus on one main villain really works, even when the producers could easily have dipped into the pool of Daredevil villains available to them – maybe we’ll see Elektra or Bullseye in season two…

Though, of course, let’s not forget Wesley, Fisk’s assistant. Two reasons I loved Wesley:
  • They avoided the cliché of having the loyal, cultured butler-type character be a posh Englishman. Which is great restraint.
  • The face he does when he realises Fisk speaks both Japanese and Chinese and so all his translation has been pointless.
If the series has one weak point, it’s Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). After Murdock and Nelson get her out of a sticky situation with her employer, a firm laundering money for Fisk, she takes a job as their secretary and launches her own investigation in her spare time. The problem is, she doesn’t really achieve that much, and far too often ends up needing to be rescued by Foggy, Matt, or reporter Ben Urich, who regularly tells her off for her clumsy and dangerous methods of investigation. After another recent Marvel series, Agent Carter, had such a kick-ass feminist lead, I kind of wish the main female character in Daredevil could take a more active role in her own story.

So, if there’s one improvement to be made in season two, it’s that Daredevil could have more active female characters. But, all in all, it’s no surprise that a second season has been commissioned on top of all the other shows Marvel and Netflix have in development. 

This is largely thanks to the great central set of characters (returning to that Breaking Bad comparison, the protagonist/antagonist dynamic is much more reminiscent of Bad than anything in The Wire) and also to the tone. It makes the Marvel universe ‘dark’, with some genuinely nasty moments of violence, but doesn’t lose the sense of fun – the lighter moments between Matt and Foggy are a good source of comic relief which prevent the tone from being ‘dark’ in the pretentious, brooding, ultimately annoying way characterised by the likes of Man of Steel. Thus, Daredevil fits well into the universe of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers; indeed, the references to wider aspects of the universe cement this rather than feeling forced – the necessity of rebuilding a ruined New York City in particular. And there are even some hints at future series in there for fans to spot…

It’ll be difficult for Marvel to top this stylish and compelling crime thriller.

Unless the next series they do features, I don’t know, maybe David Tennant in an awesome purple suit. You know, something like that.

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